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Percival Everett gives Mark Twain's classic story about Huck a new voice in 'James'

Author Percival Everett photographed in Pasadena, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2022.
G L Askew II for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Author Percival Everett photographed in Pasadena, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2022.

Mark Twains' Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opens with two warnings. In the first, Twain tries to head off any attempts to find a motive, moral, or plot in the book. In the second, he explains that the book uses a number of dialects that he's painstakingly researched. "I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding," he writes.

/ Doubleday
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Doubleday

Neither warning worked out that well.

Huck Finn is one of the most celebrated books in American literature. First published in 1884, it's about a ragamuffin boy who fakes his death and runs away from home. He meets Jim, a man escaping slavery. The two decide to stick together and get into some scary and sketchy situations in their travels. The book has been long venerated by scholars and cherished by fans. It's also one of the most contentious books in the canon. In 1885, librarians in Concord, Mass. banned the book, calling it "trash." In 1998, a federal appeals court denied a parent's attempt to remove the book from her child's high school curriculum. That said, it isn't hard to find storiesof other schools successfully pulling the book from its reading lists.

Now, the acclaimed novelist Percival Everett is out with James, a re-telling of the story from Jim's point of view. But it isn't a rebuke of the original. "My writing James is not in any way an indictment of Twain at all," he says. "I'm writing the novel that Twain was – not ill equipped – but unequipped to write. That being the story of Jim. So I consider this more as being in discourse with Twain."

"I may be flattering myself, but that's how I like to think," Everett says.

A linguistic twist on the original

Those dialects Twain had flagged in the beginning of his original got him into trouble pretty quickly. "White dialect, Black dialect, it was the first novel that really showed America's regional language to itself," says Jocelyn A. Chadwick, a longtime educator, Twain scholar, and author of the book The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn. "And Americans don't necessarily like that."

Everett's James remakes the world as one where Jim, his wife and other enslaved people can speak "proper english." They just have to hide it. "Oppressed people in oppressive situations use language the same way we always use language — to communicate," Everett says. "What they have to do is communicate in a way that doesn't allow their oppressors to have access."

In a scene early on, Jim teaches his kids how to talk in front of white people. He sets them up with hypothetical where say, Mrs. Holiday has started a grease fire on the stove. "Mrs. Holiday is about to throw water on it. What do you say? Rachel?," Jim asks his kids.

Percival Everett's pathological irony

This toying with the dialect gives James some of its tensest moments. Jim is hyper-vigilant about how he's speaking and to whom. But it's also the source of the wry humor Everett is known for throughout his work. In his 2021 novel The Trees, there are some genuinely funny bumbling moments in a book that's about the history of lynching. In his 2001 novel Erasure, a writer hilariously bangs his head against the wall dealing with racism within the publishing industry.

It's this brand of humor that led screenwriter and director Cord Jefferson to direct Erasure into the Oscar-winning movie American Fiction. "I think there's a tendency nowadays that people have where they're concerned about seeming glib when they're writing about these serious things like identity and race and sexuality," Jefferson says. "And here was this guy who was making me laugh every page while talking about the most serious of subjects. And I think that, to me, just felt like such a breath of fresh air."

But Everett doesn't consider himself a funny writer. "I don't know if I write humor as much as I'm pathologically ironic. And so things become funny when irony is involved."

Everett's already a big name in literary circles. He writes a lot of books and they're consistently in the running for various book prizes. But the success of American Fiction has meant more attention from outside that circle. And James has already gotten similarly rave reviews. But he has a way of downplaying attention, even as he's doing press for the book. "It's just work," Everett says. "I don't take it all that seriously. This is the American culture. How much impact can a literary novel have on the thinking of the people of the United States? We're not a reading culture."

There is something slightly ironic about a writer who doubts the power of the literary novel writing a book like James. But maybe he's right. That first warning in Twain's original did read "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." And look how that turned out.

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Andrew Limbong
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.